Iceland v The Internet: Online Pornography Ban Plans Considered

Iceland is considering becoming the first democracy in the western world to try to ban online pornography.

Following nationwide consultation with professionals in health, education, and police and lawyers working in the field of sexual violence, Halla Gunnarsdóttir, adviser to the interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson, says there is support for such a move.

Gunnarsdóttir said:

“We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech.”

She added:

“Research shows that the average age of children who see online porn is 11 in Iceland and we are concerned about that and about the increasingly violent nature of what they are exposed to. This is concern coming to us from professionals since mainstream porn has become very brutal.

“A strong consensus has been building, with people agreeing that something has to be done. The Internet is a part of our society, not separate from it, and should be treated as such. No one is talking about closing down exchange of information. We have a thriving democracy here in our small country and what is under discussion is the welfare of our children and their rights to grow and develop in a non-violent environment.”

According to The Guardian, gender equality is highly valued in Iceland and by its openly gay prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir.

The paper goes on to report that an online ban would complement Iceland’s existing law against printing and distributing porn, legislation enacted in 2010 legislation that closed strip clubs, and 2009 prostitution laws that criminalized the customer rather than the sex worker.

Among the plans being reviewed by ministers, Internet and legal experts are the introduction of Web filters, the blocking of certain addresses, and making it a crime to use Icelandic credit cards to access pay-per-view pornography.

Hildur Fjóla Antonsdóttir, a gender specialist at Iceland University, said:

“This initiative is about narrowing the definition of porn so it does not include all sexually explicit material but rather material that can be described as portraying sexual activity in a violent or hateful way. There are some who say it can’t be done technically – but we want to explore all possibilities and take a political decision on what can be done and how.”

Dissent from some experts follows the line that not all porn is bad. Some have cited research such as Montreal University’s 2009 study which found that porn did not change men’s perception of women.

Dr. Tim Jones, a psychologist at Worcester University, said: “The internet is fueling more extreme fantasies and the danger is that they could be played out in real life.”

In addition, Pröstur Jónasson of Iceland’s Association of Digital Freedom has called the Interior ministry’s proposals unfeasible. Jónasson says that in order for Internet service providers to block pornography they would need to filter the content, meaning someone would have to decide what is OK and what isn’t.

Among the voices decrying that they see as plans for censorship is Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who is chairman of Iceland’s International Modern Media Institute is , an Icelandic MP, and a former WikiLeaks activist. She claims the ban will stop companies hosting their business in Iceland and could open the doors to the kind of state control seen in countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and Iran.

Another WikiLeaks volunteer, Smári McCarthy, who is the executive director of the International Modern Media Initiative, has called the bill “fascist” and the interior minister “insane.”

But the interior minister has rejected claims that restricting Internet access is censorship, and says part of the consultation process is to establish a legal definition for the pornographic material to be blocked.

“It’s a myth that there is no proper definition for what is porn, 70% of European countries do have one in law,” said Gunnarsdóttir, adding, “If we cannot discuss a ban on violent pornography, which we all agree has a very harmful effect on young people and can have a clear link to incidences of violent crime, then that is not good.”

Dr. Gail Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College in Boston and the author of Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality agrees.

“Of course internet porn is damaging,” she said. “We have years of empirical evidence. It’s like global warming – you will always find some global warming deniers out there who can quote some little piece of research they have found somewhere, some science junk, but the consensus is there.

Elaborating, Dines explains:

“We are not saying you see porn and go out and rape, but we are saying it shifts the way people think about sexual relationships, about intimacy, about women. A lot of people really don’t realize what porn looks like online. If a 12-year-old searches for porn in Google, he doesn’t get some Playboy pictures, he gets graphic brutal hardcore images of women being choked with tears running down their faces and of the kind of anal sex that has female porn stars in America suffering from anal prolapses.”

“Children are traumatized by what they see. You develop your sexual template around puberty and if you see brutal porn on an industrialized scale then can anyone really suggest that exposure has no effect? Because, if so, then we will have to totally rethink an awful lot of branches of science and psychology.”

CNN notes that other countries will be watching developments in Iceland carefully in light of growing international concern about the availability and increasingly hardcore nature of internet porn.

In number terms, 40 million users regularly view online pornography in the US. The domestic porn industry makes $2.84 billion a year with that figure doubling worldwide.

The percentage of all search engine requests that are pornographic is 25 million, while “Sex” is the most commonly searched word. More worryingly, 11 is the average age that Internet users are first exposed to online porn.

But just as many work places now use web filters to restrict access to some sites by their employees, it could be just a matter of time before that macros up to governments.

“We are dedicated to gender equality, we are progressive,” says Gunnarsdóttir,” and we are aware that we are more willing to be radical than other governments. But I am sure they will follow our lead.”